Red Wall, Red Herring?
Economic Insecurity and Voting Intention in Britain
Professor Jane Green, Dr Roosmarijn de Geus

The economic gap between Britain’s younger graduates and non-graduates is a growing problem that politicians and policy-makers need to understand. Younger non-graduates – who live in all parts of the UK – are the most economically insecure and may not have the job security, housing security or pensions in the future that their predecessors had.

Political parties risk being out of step with these dynamics, in part because of a pre-occupation with the “Red Wall”. This is a useful term for classifying a group of constituencies. But many people now seem to equate Red Wall places with voters who support the Conservatives within them, painting a picture of economically left-behind voters who also tend to have more socially conservative and pro-Brexit values. This is misleading, at least in part.

Using data from 2018 and 2019, the report examined who feels economically insecure in Britain – and why – to directly explore the relationship between economic insecurity, social conservatism and vote choice, and to better understand sources of economic insecurity. The report found that the Conservatives owed much of their success in recent elections to the relative economic security of their older voters. While there may have been some increase in Conservative support in 2019 among more economically insecure voters, the majority of Conservative voters are economically secure. As the cost of living crisis bites and the fortunes of younger graduates and non-graduates increasingly diverge, this picture could very easily change.

The political significance of economic insecurity couldn’t be greater. Since the researchers gathered these data, the UK has endured COVID and is now dealing with the cost of living crisis. Such crises affect people according to whether they have wealth buffers; savings, a home, a secure income, the ability to borrow. Politicians need to consider who stands least ready to be able to weather this particular storm and how this might affect a future election.

The report makes three key thematic points.

  1. The risk of a divide between ‘Will Haves’ and ‘Won’t Haves’

The economic gap between Britain’s younger graduates and non-graduates is a key distinction. There is a risk these groups could become ‘will haves’ and ‘wont haves’, because while they both face a very harsh economic climate now, some have greater support and likely income returns, on average (graduates), so their outcomes could diverge in future. Not all graduates are potential ‘will haves’ and not all non-graduates are potential ‘won’t haves’, but the predicament of the group of potential ‘won’t haves’ in Britain today is different from previously. This is due, the researchers argue, to the expansion of the knowledge economy and the long-term effects of globalisation, automation and deindustrialisation, against which older generations of non-graduates were relatively better protected. Britain’s older non-graduates were more likely to have secure work, benefit from social mobility, buy a house and have a decent pension – giving them (though not all) economic security over time.

  1. Culture concerns and economics

It is misleading to simply equate economic vulnerability to concerns about immigration, support for Brexit or socially conservative values. This is one of the apparent myths of a typical ‘Red Wall voter’. Britons who are most concerned about immigration, who have the most socially conservative values and who are most pro-Leave, are also among the most economically secure voters. They are Britain’s older voters, and mostly non-graduates.

Younger non-graduates are the most economically insecure, on average, and hold more socially conservative views than younger graduates. But they are not as socially conservative, or pro-Brexit, as older non-graduates.

  1. People vote, places don’t

The Conservatives are supported by economically secure voters, on average, and by voters who are more culturally conservative and pro-Brexit. Labour are supported by more economically insecure voters than the Conservatives, on average, and voters who are more culturally liberal and pro-Remain. Economic insecurity was as strongly associated with Labour-Conservative vote intention (in 2018) as immigration attitudes and social conservativism values.

It is a mistake to simply equate the characteristics of ‘Red Wall places’ (economically left-behind areas with older populations and lower education levels) with the characteristics of the voters supporting the Conservatives (economically secure voters who tend to be older with lower education levels). The report finds some support for the Conservatives in 2019 among more economically insecure voters, but these proportions are relatively small